Wednesday, February 6, 2013

from Santarém to Óbidos

Our boat stayed close to the northern bank to avoid the downstream current and the River was so wide that we only had a near view of this one side.  Once past the few settlements, there are vast stretches of forest with only the occasional open pasture land and only here and there a flimsy structure of cane and matting and plank came out on stilts from the muddy bank, where families quietly and expressionlessly watched us pass.  There were husbands and wives and sometimes an old parent, and many young children, but almost no one who looked like a teenager or young adult, as if when the children reached a certain age they leave and go somewhere else, though I have lost track of the days of the week and perhaps it was only that some of them were at school, but I saw this everywhere along the length of the River.

We saw fires on the far bank.  In several places thick smoke came up from a broad stretch the forest, though the fires seemed separated, as if only certain tracts were being burnt, probably being cleared for cattle.  Brasilian land owners have a problem with forest, for if they do not clear it and put it into use they fear they will be accused of holding idle land and threatened with expropriation.  This insecurity of property makes it very hard to develop a farm, let alone manage a forest.  This policy, ostensibly hostile to latifundia,  in fact favors large enterprises with the capital to immediately put their land into use and makes it difficult for small ranchers who would grow their operation over time to hold contiguous undeveloped land until their herd has grown to need use of it.  

At dawn on the 15th we were back in the main channel, headed for the town of Óbidos.  The River is brownish-white again, colored by sediment of upstream runoff.  As I had feared, my hammock at the railing, fine a view as it provided, proved a bit of a problem when it rained, but a small adjustment brought me under shelter and tropical rain is very good about falling straight down.

The packs of children  --  I would guess them about eight to twelve years old and all of them well-behaved  --  who roam the boat have made my hammock one of their regular stops and I entertain them with the low-tech wonders from my shoulder bag.  An odd thing I noticed was that they didn’t seem to know how how to use a magnifying glass, insisting on holding it up to their eye like a monocle.  Or perhaps they simply found the idea of a monocle more interesting than a magnifying glass.  Though we had plenty of sun there were no ants at hand, so I had no occasion to teach them that childhood staple.  The idea of adjusting binoculars also seemed uncongenial to them.  They are very considerate children who, when they found me in my hammock writing or concentrating on something they would not disturb me but just pass by and some of them gently touch my shoulder.  At Óbidos, a little girl woke me from a nap so that I could see the town.

I get hot when I put on even my sunglasses.  How did Indiana Jones do it in a felt hat and leather jacket?  I discover that the fellow from San Francisco who runs the bar also sells bathroom tissue, something which the ship owners had apparently not considered part of our passage.  Also I discover that in the morning the soft drinks and beer are actually cold, which is not the case later in the day.

On a crowded boat there is of course a great deal of litter produced and I discovered that there were only two ways to dispose of it.  I could throw it into the river myself, or I could put it in one of the two small trash receptacles I have found on our deck and a member of the crew will throw it into the river on my behalf.  Embracing the ethical defense of an intervening moral agency, I chose the second of these.  It could be argued that there is a third option: to carry my trash with me when I leave the boat; but I suspect I would need to go quite some distance inland to be confident that it wouldn’t wind up back in the river, and futile actions are not ethically required.

As we sprawled about, perspiring, in our T-shirts, a German fellow showed me a glossy advertisement from our shipping line that showed a dapper traveler in a pith helmet and a text promising that a trip up the Amazon on one of their boats would be a real adventure.  He thought the ad was quite amusing.
     I am constantly moving about, trying to find a breeze or at least someplace less hot.  Even moving with tropical economy, I perspire continually.  Quite a few got off at Santarém, but there still seem almost as many on board as before.  In the constant press of people there is privacy only in my dreams.  And constant noise. A hard place for the spirit.  But on board the ship is the brown man’s tropics, not the white man’s tropics of verandahs and porters and servants with iced lemonade and long naps in the shade.  There are a few people on board who do not have hammocks and they sleep on life vests spread on the deck like a mattress , which however adequate it may be is less so when the deck is awash with rainwater, which they gamely ignore.  On board our boat it is not the tropics of those insulated by money and race and class.  Not some literary tropics where expats sip rum and write novels.  Despite all this, I am actually finding it interesting, as if there were some pleasure in the discomfort.  This was something new for me.

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